The experts can tell us that a child's being snatched by a stranger is rare and that these kinds of kidnappings are not on the increase. But every time it happens,it strikes at our primal fear that we cannot protect our children against the incidental malice of the universe. But experts say parents can teach some basic safety lessons and reinforce them regularly:
YELL AND TELL. Ernie Allen, head of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says the old adage "Don't talk to strangers" has limited value if the stranger doesn't come off as a potential threat to a child. Young children often envision strangers as evil looking and might not identify a well-dressed, soft-spoken man looking for help finding his dog as someone to distrust. Security expert Gavin de Becker, author of Protecting the Gift (Little Brown), says parents must educate their kids to be assertive and, specifically, to yell and tell. "When someone tells your child 'Don't yell,' that's when they should yell 'This isn't my dad!' and scream for help, and when someone says 'Don't tell,' they should right away tell someone they trust," he says.
GO TO A MOM. Instead of teaching kids to find a police officer, security guard or salesperson if they're lost and scared, instruct them to find a mom, which generally means someone with a stroller or a child in tow. Police officers and clerks are scarce when you need them, and De Becker says women are more likely than men to stop to help lost children and stay with them until they are found.
HAVE AN AGREEMENT. Make sure your children know that you will never ask someone to pick them up without telling them first. Kids should also never approach a car and if one approaches them, should run or ride their bike in the opposite direction, go to a safe place and tell a trusted adult right away.
REHEARSE A ROUTE. Make sure kids know exactly how to get to and from places they walk to regularly and how to identify safe places where they can stop along the way. (I've been doing this with my daughter, who started walking to school this year, and I check up on her periodically, unannounced, to make sure she's sticking to the plan.)
HAVE A RECENT PHOTO. Take photos of your child every few months, noting the child's current height and weight on the back. Allen says in missing-kid cases in which such portraits were publicized, accurate photos helped recover 1 in 6 children last year.
HAVE A MEETING PLACE. Parents should establish a specific place to meet their kids in the event they become separated. For example, if you're at a fair, agree to meet at the big Ferris wheel, and tell the child to wait there until a parent shows up. It's also a good idea to take along your kid's picture, in case it needs to be shown to others.